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Struggles, and choice test Palestinian voters

First in a series of occasional articles on the Palestinians as they prepare for elections on Jan. 25.

NABLUS, West Bank -- Palestinian voters are facing the broadest range of political choices in their history as they prepare to choose their leadership after a series of seismic events that have altered the Middle East landscape.

For the first time, the party founded by Yasser Arafat is squaring off on the national stage against its long-time rival, the militant group Hamas. Although Hamas has carried out scores of suicide bombings against Israel and is listed by the US State Department as a terrorist group, it is respected by many Palestinians for its piety, anticorruption stance, and network of social services.

The ground shifted for Palestinians with the November 2004 death of Arafat, who had personified and controlled Palestinian policy for decades, and then again with Israel's withdrawal last summer from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation. Now, a generational struggle within Arafat's party, Fatah, has burst into the open before the Jan. 25 election of the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council, the parliament for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinians once terrified to speak ill of Arafat and his inner circle now openly excoriate the corruption of Fatah's ''old guard." In the run-up to the election, the party's younger generation has threatened to split Fatah and run its own list of candidates, gun battles have broken out between the factions, and some long-time Fatah members have even thrown in their lot with rivals from Hamas.

''This is a critical moment," said Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian sociologist who has tracked Palestinian public opinion for the past decade. ''The struggle we have seen in the street for five years" -- the struggle for power and authority within Palestinian society -- ''is about to be transferred to the institutions."

All this ferment has brought Palestinians a more meaningful choice than they had last February, three months after Arafat's death, when they elected Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority, the governing body for Palestinians.

Although the parliament, the legislative branch of the authority, has far less power than the president, Palestinians view the legislative election as a referendum on their leadership. The legislature approves Cabinet members, oversees the budget, and can issue a vote of no confidence in the government.

Hamas, the only group that rivals the popularity and patronage power of Fatah, boycotted last year's presidential election. So did the jailed leader of Fatah's young guard, Marwan Barghouti, who now, after a fierce internal struggle, heads the party's candidate list. Hamas also boycotted the previous legislative elections in 1996.

The new variety of candidates means Palestinians can vote for the first time on issues as substantive as corruption, the role of Islam, and whether and how to use violence in the struggle with Israel, which captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war.

The election will help set the course for how the Palestinian Authority deals with Israel 12 years after the Oslo Accords, which were supposed to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, but instead became mired in a stalemate that led to the bloodiest conflict ever between Palestinians and Israelis from 2000 to early 2005.

Both sides had hoped Arafat's death in November 2004 would yield new leadership with the legitimacy among Palestinians and the clout with the Israeli government needed to shake up the deadlocked peace process. But Palestinian policy has appeared confused and unmoored in the past year, even as Israel has charted a decisive new course, unilaterally building a security barrier to separate Palestinians from Israelis and withdrawing from Gaza on its own terms.

Palestinian politicians, militant leaders, and analysts say that without a clearer strategy, Palestinians risk allowing Israel to shut them out entirely by taking further unilateral moves that would replace bilateral negotiations with a final settlement dictated by Israel.

Now, dissatisfied voters are being offered several choices.

Hamas refuses to renounce violence and advocates an Islamic state. Fatah's young guard echoes Hamas's anticorruption stance but wants a secular state. Fatah officially accepts Israel's existence and is pushing for a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state, but still has an armed wing and a fierce internal debate over whether violence is acceptable. And several slates of independents have also entered the fray.

Many Palestinians are riveted by the new debate among imperfect political choices -- especially after Hamas trounced Fatah in municipal elections in several West Bank cities last month. Banners flutter from the steep slopes of Nablus to the coastline of Gaza City -- green for Hamas, yellow for Fatah.

Yet even with so much at stake, many are deeply disillusioned with politics that appear to have accomplished little for Palestinians, who after more than a decade under the Palestinian Authority still live in Third World conditions in the West Bank and Gaza and have made little progress in easing tight Israeli control over their mobility and economy.

According to the World Bank, 43 percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line, 23 percent are unemployed, a figure that reaches 60 percent among youth in refugee camps. Just 66,000 of the West Bank and Gaza's 3.3 million Palestinians work in Israel, down from 150,000 before the second intifadah.

Radwan Shehadi, 21, who works in a poultry shop in downtown Nablus, supports his family after his father was wounded and his brother killed in clashes with Israelis, and despairs of ever having enough money to get married. Sitting with a group of friends in a café across the street from his shop, he said that any Palestinian who wants to make a difference faces two equally unattractive choices. ''I can be corrupt in the eyes of others" -- by joining Fatah -- ''or I can be a terrorist in the eyes of Israel" -- by supporting Hamas, he said. ''If you are not a terrorist and you are not corrupt, then you are powerless."

Palestinians cite other reasons for cynicism about the elections, in which half the legislators are chosen from nationwide party lists and half from geographical districts.

In its first decade, the Palestinian Legislative Council has had only a limited impact on budget and governance issues.

And it is part of a Palestinian Authority already widely discredited in the eyes of both Palestinians and Israelis, whose military intervention can crush the authority at will. The violence at every stage of the election process -- gunmen taking over election offices and issuing demands, clashes in the streets disrupting Fatah's primary voting -- has underscored the authority's weakness.

And militant factions that don't participate in the election could still have a decisive vote. Islamic Jihad, a relatively small but hard-line group, is boycotting the elections and has unleashed six suicide attacks against Israel since February, when Palestinian militants declared a truce. A major attack that prompted a massive Israeli crackdown could undermine any elected government and halt any progress in the conflict.

Palestinians prefer Fatah when they think about national issues like the peace process but increasingly prefer Hamas on local issues, Shikaki said. A poll he released this month indicated that Fatah was slated to beat Hamas 43 percent to 25 percent in the national party-list vote that determines half of the legislature. But Hamas was on track to tie Hamas in the local district races that determine the other half of the seats.

At the café, Shehadi and his friends tried to puzzle out whether any of the candidates could possibly help them.

Arafat, he said, was to blame for the uprising that began in 2000, which brought Shehadi's education to an end in the seventh grade and led to the death of his brother, who was shot while throwing rocks at Israelis.

''He ruined our lives," he said.

Now, he added, Palestinian Authority security officials bully him by day and Israeli raids frighten him at night.

The café's owner, Majdi Mahlouf, 22, said that in previous elections, politicians have promised reform and economic improvements that never materialized. ''Now they are repeating the same things," he said. ''I don't believe they are going to do anything different."

He ticked off the players.

''Islamic Jihad will not provide safety," he said. ''They will keep attacking the Israelis, and there will be more raids, more checkpoints."

As for the Palestinian Authority, he said, ''No one understands their strategy."

And Hamas's promises to stop corruption, he said, have yet to be tested: ''We'll wait and see how they translate talk into reality."

Palestinians seem ambivalent about the emergence of Hamas, which favors rule by Islamic law, as a growing political force.

Only about 15 percent of Palestinians define themselves as Islamists, in favor of an Islamic state, according to Shikaki's Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. About 15 percent are committed secularists, and the remaining 70 percent Shikaki calls ''traditional Muslims," who have increasingly defected from Fatah to Hamas.

Many who support Hamas's anticorruption agenda remain uncomfortable over things Hamas has done in areas it controls, like banning cinemas and alcohol.

Dr. Randa Abu Rabiee is experiencing that confusion. Abu Rabiee, who favors a Palestinian state alongside Israel, works on health issues in Nablus and spent last year in Canada on a peace and reconciliation program, said the participation of the Islamists gave the election ''a new taste, a better taste" -- because it changed the calcified political landscape.

But Rabiee, a Muslim who displays Koranic verses, a Jewish menorah, and Christian carvings, said of the Islamists, ''They are like a knife with two blades."

She resents Hamas leaders for encouraging young boys to blow themselves up and fears that if they win, they will start to interfere in the details of life, such as her decision not to cover her hair.

''They will say, 'God gave us the authority,' and they are going to organize our life the way they want."

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